But as industries all over the world have moved towards being more and more digital, online degrees have become mainstream. Even Ivy League institutions such as Columbia University’s School of Social Work now offer online options, which compete with programs at online-only schools like Walden University.

Convenience plus affordability are two major factors driving the popularity of online MSWs. For many aspiring social workers, the flexibility and convenience of an online format is what allows them to take on the demands of graduate study. The lower tuition offered by many online schools also makes the MSW degree more affordable. This is especially important for social workers, because an MSW doesn’t always provide a huge return on investment (ROI). There are many other advantages to pursuing an online degree, including not having to commute to take classes, and avoiding the big disruption of relocation to attend a top program.

As mentioned, online MSW programs go beyond convenience to offer the biggest bang for your buck. But beware of making low cost your main criteria in picking a school. Not all online MSW programs are created equally. Reputation matters. Accreditation matters. So does your ability to specialize and graduate with in-demand skills.

Here is what you should consider in choosing the most affordable online MSW options:

  1. Cost: Although MSWs can earn a good living, particularly if they advance to more lucrative areas of work such as private practice (which requires licensure and two or more years of supervised field experience post-graduation), the social work profession is not like becoming a lawyer or a doctor. In reality, an MSW degree is not known for its high ROI.

Any program with an annual tuition of $20,000 and under is probably considered a good buy. At some programs, particularly in schools like Walden, tuition may be reduced with credits transferred in. You should read the fine print to better understand a program’s tuition schedule. You should also consider other hidden costs such as buying a laptop, books, student fees and travel costs for getting to and from your fieldwork experience.

  1. Accreditation: Sometimes, you get what you pay for. Avoid those programs that are only regionally accredited, no matter how many small regional accrediting agencies the school boasts of. The gold standard is accreditation by the Council for Social Work Education, CSWE. This organization accredits both baccalaureate and masters social work programs in the United States. CSWE accreditation signifies that a program has meet a minimum standard of excellence and rigor.

Social work is a regulated profession that requires licensure for practice. The majority of states require CSWE accreditation as part of the educational requirement for licensure. If you neglect this important aspect of your MSW education, you may find yourself with a diploma of limited value.

  1. Specializations and fields of practice: Many online programs do not offer the kind of rich and specialized study concentrations that their traditional campus-based counterparts do. However, some online programs do offer the opportunity to specialize in a particular practice area. It is well worth the investment to pick a school where you can develop expert, specialized skills within a specific area. You will draw upon this experience when you enter the job market.
  1. Field work experience: CSWE accreditation mandates MSW students spend a certain amount of hours in a fieldwork experience. Typically this ranges from 900 to 1200 field practicum hours, and applies to anyone in an online or on-campus program. Although an advantage of online study is that the field practicum can be pursued in one’s hometown, it may be impossibly difficult to set this up without the support of the school. You should research whether the school has fieldwork contacts or programs in your local area. Likewise, you should learn if you will be assigned an online fieldwork advisor, or if the online program even has a dedicated fieldwork department.

If you do have to identify and secure your own fieldwork experience, you may rue the day you chose a program on price alone. The fieldwork practicum is the signature differentiator in MSW education. Great fieldwork experiences often lead to an excellent first job out of graduate school.

5. Reputation: Some schools enjoy a strong geographic reputation and presence. Ask yourself if an online program is well regarded. Do agencies and local hirers respect this program? Do well-connected faculty teach there, and are they engaged in meaningful research with broad appeal?

An example of this kind of school is Hunter College in New York City. Hunter College is a public school sharing the same geographic locale as strong MSW program competitors including New York University and Columbia. But within the New York City community, and among locale healthcare agencies and other social work institutions, Hunter is considered a powerhouse MSW program. On top of that, it’s very affordable. Nationally, it is far less known.

Because online programs live in a somewhat undefined space, local appeal can be difficult to determine. But consider how you will feel about the value of your degree from a known online provider such as Walden or Capella, versus an online MSW from a school like Tulane or the University of Denver.

Picking the Right Affordable Online MSW Program

If you are thinking about getting an online MSW, make sure that cost is not your sole determinant: what you study should be a high priority as well. When it comes to salary and positioning oneself in the marketplace, the opportunity to graduate with skills in a specialized area such as adolescence or trauma and disaster mental health may be more important than getting bargain basement tuition. After all, even with low tuition you will be spending years of your life in pursuit of this degree; don’t you want it to be worth it? You will be leveraging your degree over a lifetime of positions and jobs. Consider the value of your MSW as both a short and long-term investment.

Nedda
Nedda Gilbert

Ms. Gilbert is a certified social worker and 30 year educational consultant with an interest in helping college-bound and graduate school students manage the process and stress of admissions effectively. She is one of the senior founding managers of the Princeton Review Test Preparation Company, and the author of The Princeton Review Guide to the Best Business Schools and another book, Business School Essays that Made a Difference (Random House). She is a guest contributor to Forbes Magazine on college and college life. Ms. Gilbert is also certified as a collaborative family law professional in New Jersey. She received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and MS from Columbia University.